Giya Kancheli: Exil (ECM New Series 1535)

Giya Kancheli
Exil

Maacha Deubner soprano
Natalia Pschenitschnikova alto and bass recorder
Catrin Demenga violin
Ruth Killius viola
Rebecca Firth cello
Christian Sutter double bass
Wladimir Jurowski conductor
Recorded May 1994 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“When a person goes into a church, synagogue or mosque where there’s not service going on, there’s a special kind of silence. I want to turn that silence into music.”
–Giya Kancheli

Anyone who reads my reviews regularly will have noticed my penchant for the word “beautiful” when describing the music of ECM. And while I do invoke the word sincerely whenever I use it, at the risk of diluting it even further I should like to make a case for it in the context of this album over all others, for nowhere have I heard music that takes the concept to a level beyond even itself. For composer-in-exile Giya Kancheli, beauty is romantic only insofar as it stems from nostalgia, recognizing as it does the stoic enchantment in all that emerges from destruction. Exil (1994) draws its humble sentiments from, and sketches its permeable borders around, biblical Psalms and the poems of Paul Celan and Hans Sahl, and is scored for soprano and mixed chamber ensemble. Within the latter, alto and bass flutes constitute a vivid presence.

When my uncle, Anthony Grillo, was on his deathbed, losing his battle with stomach cancer, the sound of his brother’s voice reading Psalm 23 were the last he ever heard before his passing. Exil came into my life soon after. And so, when I first received the album, only to see that the selfsame Psalm was the basis for its pinnacle composition, I took solace in the confluence of its arrival. The opening alto flute invocation of Kancheli’s setting stills my heart every time and brings with it a host of angels. The tapping of bows and subtle violin accompaniments throughout extract an immeasurable potency from the depths of Maacha Duebner’s unaffected voice. I imagine the score looks just as empty as, say, that of Pärt’s Tabula rasa, but it is precisely those spaces that Kancheli seems intent on populating with pensive, unmoving figures. Listeners will recognize much of the thematic material from his Life Without Christmas cycle in crystallized form, and indeed it would seem to be the backbone of his entire oeuvre. It enacts a profound sense of development, flexing with every prostration. A distinct instrumental economy makes the work’s one explosive moment that much more jarring. As the music moves, so does its heart, borne along like a coffin in a slow and steady procession into sunset.

Deubner’s boy-like soprano haunts the divine understandings of Celan’s postmodern verses that follow, while Sahl’s reiterative “Exil” lends equal weight to pause as to utterance. Like the gaps between rosary beads, one cannot exist without the other. It brings that sense of hope, of sanctuary, back into view, symbolized by glassy harmonics on strings. And as the music reacclimates to the central theme, it curls into itself and sleeps in almost Messianic hibernation, awaiting the moment when it can spread its joy across the universe like a supernova unbounded.

This was one of my earliest New Series acquisitions and came right on the heels of my already profound exposure to the work of Arvo Pärt. My mother had heard “Psalm 23” on the radio and was so moved by it that she ordered a copy of the CD and sent it to me as a surprise. And what a surprise it was, for it opened my internal eyes to things I never thought expressible in human terms. The voice of Maacha Duebner is a revelation in and of itself. Stripped of its ornamentation, it sings a seemingly unmitigated song, shaping each phrase with the practiced lips of a priestess. The supporting musicians match her delicacy with an astonishing blending of tone and register. Performances such as these place a stethoscope to the divine and make audible the heartbeat that binds us all. The music’s sacredness speaks beyond printed pages and the ideological glue that binds them. It is the kind of music that makes one feel supremely grateful to have been born in an age where one could hear it.

(Session photo by Roberto Masotti)

As with many ECM releases, the accompanying liner notes include photographs of the recording session. Of these, one image remains permanently etched into my mind: that of engineer, musicians, and producer listening to playback, and the almost dolorous appreciation on their faces. Many are on verge of tears, if not shedding them already. It makes me want to have been there, not only as a fly on the wall but particularly as a musician, to have had a hand in contributing to something greater than the sum of one’s musical parts. This photograph allows us a unique insight into that very dynamic that those of us on the consumer end of the recording process almost never get to witness, much less experience firsthand. Kancheli’s music nevertheless reveals on its own terms, a juggernaut of spiritual proportions that comports itself with the gentility of a newborn lamb, its head struggling to look up into the light as it learns to negotiate those divine forces that shape its balance into being. This is music we humble ourselves before, yet which demands nothing of us.

For what it’s worth, this is my favorite ECM release thus far and belongs in the collection of anyone seeking the expansion of heart and mind that only art can bring. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I can only feel blessed for having beheld this.

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